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Some Modest Suggestions for the Performing Arts Center

The Orange County Performing Arts Center appears to be a bigger hit than even some Center officials guessed, judging from results of a poll commissioned by The Times and published last week.

Center President Thomas R. Kendrick described as “phenomenal” a finding that 40% of the county’s population reports having been to the Center at least once. And more than half the people who visited once reported that they went back at least one more time.

That is pretty impressive for a building that just turned 2 on Thursday. Now if the folks behind the Grand Portal can only find some way to reach the other 60%. . . .

Fortunately, I have some ideas.

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The good news about those who have yet to touch the arch’s red Swedish granite is that it isn’t because they don’t own tuxedos or evening gowns. Only 1% said they had not been to the Center because they consider it “too formal.”

Instead, about 41% cited lack of time (maybe they just didn’t have time to get that tux). The rest were divided between lack of bucks to afford Center tickets, lack of awareness of Center events and lack of interest in what the Center offers.

My own theory, though, is that the real issue keeping thousands of potential arts hounds away is that you still can’t get a cup of java in the place.

As to lack of awareness of events, however, I can sympathize. Trying to wend your way through the Center’s recorded telephone information maze (“If you’d like to buy tickets, press ‘5'; if you’d like information on how to buy tickets, press ‘6'; if you’d like more information on other information, press ‘7' ”) can be like joining up with Indiana Jones on a search for the lost ark. I would rather spend my time on something less complicated--like getting the FBI to release its John Lennon dossier.

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I also think, survey findings aside, that the Center could still stand to be a little less stuffy, a little friendlier. True, Johnny Cash’s performance last January proved to everyone that it was OK to show up in Levi’s and enjoy songs with only three chords.

But the Center ought to go further and do like the Angels and have premium nights. Sports franchises know that every time they sweeten the pot with a little wooden baseball bat or a kid’s batting glove at the turnstile, they draw thousands of fans who wouldn’t otherwise buy a ticket.

There is no reason this can’t be carried over into the performing arts. When there is a notable guest conductor in town, the Center could have “Baton Night,” where everyone gets his or her own conductor’s baton. The audience could be further included by being encouraged to conduct-along on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (I bet it would astonish a lot of people to suddenly realize that our national anthem is a waltz.)

Another way to bring down the barrier that sometimes separates the artists from the masses: Instead of simply selling general subscriptions, orchestras and other groups could foster greater patron loyalty by letting people sponsor individual musicians. You know, like at the Santa Ana Zoo, where your donation can be earmarked for the mountain lion or lemur of your choice, and someone makes you a little plaque with your name on it. That way, financial support isn’t so faceless.

You could go to a concert and train the binoculars on your very own second violinist or double bassist to watch how he or she handles the demands of Shostakovich’s Fifth. And like Little League teams, someone could stitch each sponsor’s name onto the back of each musician’s tux or gown, giving the audience tangible acknowledgement of his or her support.

Center strategists also need to work on a marketing campaign to bridge the apparent north-south schism in support for the Center (the survey showed that 52% of frequent attendees--six or more performances--come from south and east of the Costa Mesa Freeway).

Musicals being far and away the single most popular item at the Center, the booking department might consider a revival of “North Pacific,” the early, unsuccessful version of one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best-loved works. Or they could package an evening of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart as “Great Composers of the Northern Hemisphere.”

Kendrick said he was less than pleased with the poll’s finding that 91% of the county’s populace is either “somewhat satisfied” or “very satisfied” with performing arts and cultural events in Orange County as they stand.

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Given that three-fifths of county residents haven’t attended anything at the Center--yet the vast majority are nonetheless pretty happy about whatever it is they are doing for cultural enrichment--that doesn’t leave our arts vendors with much room for growth.

But that could easily be remedied with a modest educational outreach program to promote the idea that there is more to cultural enlightenment than watching “Three Stooges” reruns (unless it’s a really good one where Curly slaps his forehead and spins around on one foot when he gets mad).

My own gripe with the poll has to do with a vital piece of data that is missing from the statistical profile of the regular user of the Center. The poll tells us that the most frequent Center-goer is a woman, a college graduate, from south Orange County, who earns $50,000 a year or more.

So what’s her phone number?


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